Perfumer Marie Salamagne is the Nose Behind Fashion’s Most Revered Designers


Born in Paris, Marie Salamagne was studying to become a doctor when she had a change of heart. Intrigued by the mechanics of chemistry but desperately in search of a more creative process, she finished her degree only to make a turn. Soon she found herself at the historic ISIPCA perfume school in Versailles, the institute founded by Jean-Paul Guerlain, whose family’s house she would collaborate with years later, in addition to the likes of Vivienne Westwood, Maison Martin Margiela, and Azzedine Alaïa. Here, Salamagne discusses the sensorial world she’s built around herself in the past decade and her relationship with the notoriously mysterious couturier, Alaïa himself.

Because the world of perfumery is so enigmatic, it’s difficult to picture what kind of space you work in on a day-to-day. I imagine it to be somewhere between a medieval atelier and some sort of futuristic robot lab, like a Bjork music video. Is that so?
„It is not so fantastical! [Laughing.] It is a normal office. You know how a mess can be organized? That is the way in which I work. My desk is often covered with many samples and vials. Notebooks too! I love recording notes about anything and everything: raw materials, ideas I have, random things that occur to me, aromas that I come across.“

Smell is so complex, but it’s also such a momentary event. It’s bodily. How do you put these experiences—say a whiff of tree whilst walking past it—into words?
„Whenever I have an idea—whether it’s a vivid description, a name of food, or even a color, I write it on paper. That is the way I remember particular smells—I associate each with a familiar feeling or life event. I take these notes and create an almost library of them. When I want to produce an effect in perfume, I go through my collection. Through this I can create anything from a fresh rose to the smell of lust. Vetiver, for instance, is difficult to explain in words. It’s woody, of course, but it has a little bit of earth too it. “Peanut” is what helps me recall it.“

What led you to such a specific type of work?

„Originally, I was to be a doctor. My parents were both doctors, so that must have been where that started. I realized in school, though, that that was not what I wanted to do. I studied chemistry—and I actually thought it was quite fun playing with the molecules—but I knew I wouldn’t be happy following that path. I danced a lot before that, and liked to draw. I had what you might call an artistic sensitivity. My revolution eventually came in perfume.“

I won’t name them all, but you’ve been the nose of so many distinct (commercially and artistically) scents over the last ten years. Which of the first were the most significant to you?
„When you’re a student of perfumery, the wait is long. You have to learn the history to understand how the old ones were made. Then you create simple accords while slowly increasing their complexities. It takes a very long time. When I returned to Paris after school (I trained before that in Geneva and then in Princeton, NJ), I worked with Guerlain. Many of those first fragrances are still on the market today, and I get a little smile when I smell them because I’m reminded of the excitement of that time. Then, of course, Vivienne Westwood, Yves Saint Laurent, Jo Maline, and Mr. Alaïa.“

There is a sense of parallelism between the mystery of Alaïa’s fashion house and the somewhat lost art of perfume creation. You worked with each other on the inception of his first ever scent, Alaïa Paris. What was it like to work with such a legend?
„It was so fantastic. I first met Mr. Alaïa’s years ago, and I presented him with a few ideas—very strong thoughts with a few small accords. An accord is like a sketch of a fragrance. He fell in love with a one smell in particular, and we started to work around it—something that was almost a contradiction between hot and cold. He told me he wanted to reproduce a specific moment from his past in fragrance: When he used to live with his grandmother in Tunisia as a child, she would throw ice cold buckets of water on the sun-soaked patios to cool them. He wanted to reproduce the smell of the fresh atmosphere and the heat escaping. And that’s what I did. He is someone I respect so much. Even more after working with him, which is unbelievable. He was very accessible.“

Accessible? That’s very surprising.
„He’d always consider what you had to say. Of course, he’d make his own opinions, but he is very open. He also takes his time, which I love. It’s all about the creation. “We have time,” he’d say. If we could do it better, there’s almost always more time. I really love that approach. In our crazy lives these days—when everything has to be done very quickly no matter what—he has no sensation of rush. Every time I go to his house it is always a surprise. Many things are always happening! We’d usually work there, and after a big session he’d stop and say, “Ok, we’ve worked too much, now it’s time for good times.” We’d have lunch or a little drink. Sometimes there would be exhibitions at his gallery, and he would give us a tour. There’d be very famous people, but it still felt very comfortable. That is what I like most about Mr. Alaïa: It never was showoff-y. He wanted everyone to be happy and feel great.“

From Alaïa to Westwood, your job as a fragrancier in this capacity is essentially that of a ghostwriter. To take these very unique dreams and put them into a different, fully realized language. I’m curious about your own point of view in regards to scents?
„I work a lot with what the client (the designer) gives me. Sometimes it’s a lot; sometimes it’s very little. Of course, part of my job is learning their histories. It’s key. I have to look at what they’ve done before and not only in perfume. I go through the fashion collections. I like to use these images and colors to think. For me personally, it’s all about a feeling. I want the man or woman who is wearing the scent to feel great. I want to look back on my career and be able to say that I made people feel happy, elegant. Scents don’t have to be too complicated. A fragrance can be complex and take many years to create, but the result should be simple happiness. Additive pleasure.“


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